Egypt Loves China’s Deep Pockets

By Foreign Policy
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their visit to Luxor, Egypt, on Jan. 21, 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

Gamal Abdel Nasser, former president of Egypt and Cold War schemer, was not averse to playing hardball with powerful countries. In 1955, Nasser grew tired of dallying from Washington on a long-stalled arms deal.

He shocked the West by approaching the Soviet Union, buying military equipment through Czechoslovakia, and igniting fears of a Middle Eastern arms race.

Six decades later, Cairo is looking for the best political bargain it can get once again, making diplomatic overtures to Moscow and Beijing while maintaining its crucial U.S. and the Persian Gulf backers.

As under Nasser, the Egyptian leadership has become frustrated with the United States.

The relationship grew frosty during the presidency of Barack Obama, who refused to invite President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Washington amid accusations of human rights violations. Sisi has since made a state visit to Donald Trump’s White House, but the administration’s long-term Egypt strategy remains unclear.

Congress has complained about a perceived lack of benefit for the United States from the billions it has provided to Cairo over decades. It denied almost $100 million in military aid last August, citing concerns about a repressive new law restricting nongovernmental organizations’ work.

These tensions have created new openings for both Russia and China. Moscow responded to the Sisi-Obama impasse by entering into eyebrow-raising military cooperation accords and large-scale arms deal with Cairo.

With less fanfare, Chinese money is increasingly pouring into the Egyptian economy, suggesting that the “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreed between the countries in 2014 could now develop some real teeth.

Egyptian-Russian relations have developed a stronger military tint under Sisi, the former field marshal who led the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

The two started holding joint naval and military exercises in June 2015. Reports circulated in late 2017 that the two countries were negotiating an agreement for reciprocal use of each other’s air force bases.

Sisi has also lent a welcome source of Arab support to some of Putin’s dicier foreign-policy exploits in the Middle East. Cairo has given diplomatic cover to Russia’s backing of the beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria and allegedly provided a base for Russian troops to reinforce the maverick, anti-Islamist commander Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

At times, the Sisi regime has actively snubbed its long-standing allies in pursuing closer ties with the Russian military establishment. Egypt infuriated Saudi Arabia in October 2016 by voting in favour of draft United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria that was drafted by Moscow and opposed by Riyadh.

This May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised Egypt for rebuffing a U.S. request to deploy soldiers to Syria.

Egypt’s reward has been the series of Russian arms sales, which Mordechai Chaziza, a political science specialist at Israel’s Ashkelon Academic College, argues have become crucial to Cairo’s Moscow strategy.

As the United States has shown a greater reluctance to provide military aid, the Kremlin has stepped into the void. Russia signed a $3.5 billion weapons deal with Egypt back in 2014, and it delivered more than $1 billion worth of military equipment last year alone.

Economic ties have also grown. Russia and Egypt pledged to develop a “Russian industrial zone” at the Suez Canal, where the plan is for a glut of investment from Russia on favourable terms.

During Putin’s state visit to Cairo last year, Russia agreed to finance and oversee the construction of a $21 billion nuclear power plant near El Alamein. The project remains at a very early stage, but the Egyptian government predicts that the facility will begin operating from 2026.

Despite these grand designs, Russia’s strained finances limit its ability to wield decisive economic influence in Egypt. Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, argues that any attempt to hasten the United States by reaching out to Putin has failed.

Latest headlines